Play a Game
Every now and then, I get asked is for general advice about writing. Not how to set up sentence structure or how to spot typos (obviously), but just how to be a better writer overall. Anyone who read my last post on writing here knows that if I could say one thing it would be this: Write. Write all the damn time. Improve by doing, that’s the most honest advice anyone can give you about anything.
But… if I were to tell someone two things, the first would still be the write. However, the second would be to take up a tabletop roleplaying game. Find a group, get comfortable with a system, and play a campaign under a good Game Master (GM). All of this is step one, because the real educational opportunity comes when you shed the skin of being a player and take the GM reins yourself. Yes, aside from actually writing, running a tabletop game is probably the best learning experience any author can have.
Why? Because it teaches you…
For any unfamiliar with tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, RIFTS, Pathfinder, World of Darkness, and so many others; the whole premise extends from playing an imaginary board-game. Usually there’s a map so that locations can be tracked during fights or dungeons crawls, but the vast majority of the world your players interact with is verbally painted by you, the GM. That means if you want to tell them that they’re not just in dungeons, but a scary, haunted dungeons, that’s up to you to convey through your description.
Now here’s the thing, your players aren’t going to want to sit still for ten minutes while you go through a precise description of each facet of their surroundings. The game is built on interacting and momentum, monologues rarely go well. So giving any scene ambiance requires you to balance keeping things brief with still filling in tidbits that make the environment come alive.
Mastering this is an invaluable skill for writing. No one likes whole paragraphs of nothing but setting, that shit usually gets skipped. Weaving in description is about dropping touches here and there as conversation and action occur. It’s difficult to do well, and I am in no way claiming to be an expert at it, but when executed properly it allows you create whole worlds in the in reader's head without bogging down the pace.
And speaking of whole worlds, you’ll also learn a lot about…
So your players have a quest to slay a hoard of goblins that are three towns over. How are they going to get there? Does the kingdom they’re in maintain roads? If not, then it’s about to involve a shitload of trekking through wilderness. Or maybe they towns offer carriages between destinations for a set fee. Heck, maybe this is a super advanced/wealthy kingdom and they have wizards doing daily teleports from town to town. All of this is stuff you need to know before the players have had their first run-in with a bunch of goblins.
The games will usually give you generic templates (old-west, medieval times, modern) but the little niches of the world, how the people work and live and travel and govern, all of that is going to come from you. By the end of the second game you’ll find yourself doing something an insane as plotting the path of a local grain merchant’s deliveries, because depending on the time they attack the goblins he and his grain cargo might get caught up in it.
World-building is crucial when writing in fantasy, sci-fi, or alternate world settings. And here’s the funniest part of it, 90% of the things you know will never make it into the actual novel. It’s not there to be stuffed in as filler, it’s there so that when you encounter unexpected situations or problems, you already have a rational grasp of how things in your world work. Great world-building will keep you consistent in your setting, which helps the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Oh, but lest you think all the lessons here pertain to setting stuff, make no mistake, you’ll learn a whole lot about…
When you GM, balance is one of the most crucial aspects of the game. From the difficulties of getting through traps, to how difficult simple checks are, to the math-like madness of making challenging but winnable battles, you are constantly seeking the perfect balance of difficulties to throw at your players. An unbalanced game is one that falls apart quickly, because few players like dying every game or getting so little experience that leveling up is a distant dream. How does this relate to writing?
I’ve said this in forums and comments before, but it’s worth restating: when you’re making sci-fi/fantasy novels, I highly recommend you build your characters like they’re going into a role-playing game. Obviously this doesn’t mean you need to make them adhere to a pre-existing tabletop system’s rules, just that you should look at their strengths and weaknesses analytically. Look at them as a GM reviewing a sheet a player has given you. The game hinges on balance, both for the player’s challenges and what they can do. If this character is strong in some places, it should be weak in others. No character should be so powerful that the rest of the party’s existence is ancillary, that makes the game, or story, pretty pointless.
And the key to avoiding that is balance, both for your protagonist(s) and any challenges they may face. Oh, and speaking of characters and challenges, GMing will teach one last utterly invaluable skill…
Learning to Cope With the Unexpected
Characters and players are exactly the same, in that none of them give two wet fucks what you’ve got planned. Remember the world-building example from earlier, about how will the party get to the goblins? Let’s say you worked out all the details before the game. You know they have the options of going it by themselves and navigating the wilderness, hiring a coach to transport them, or trying to find a transport wizard to bring them. Even if they do something crazy, like try and rent a griffin to ride, you know the terrain between the towns well enough to wing it. So you finally drop the quest in the party’s lap, and what do they decide to do?”
Oh, one of the NPC’s offhandedly mentioned a dragon before they got their quest, so they’re decided fuck the goblins, they’re going dragons slaying. Now you’ve got a party setting off on an adventure that you’ve done exactly jack-shit to prepare for, meanwhile three towns over a whole hoard of goblins is left standing there, dicks in their hands, all that effort wasted. And you can’t just redirect them, because while GM’s have nigh infinite power, the one thing you can’t do is take over a player’s character. I’ve seen it tried, and it usually results in games going to hell and disintegrating. The world may belong to you, but the choices of the characters are their own.
Now here’s the thing, right now that seems like a situation that only happens in gaming, but talk to any writer and they will tell you it happens so fucking much when doing a book. It’s just a natural thing, as you write characters more you get a better sense of who they are. The more that happens, the more choices get made based on what that character would do rather than what most easily moves the plot along. Yes, they’re your creations and you can write them to say what you want, but doing it feels wrong, especially when you go back and read it. It breaks the flow of character development, and threatens to remind the reader that these are artificial creations rather than real people.
Instead, you’re better off doing what GMs do, learning to roll with it. Players want to hunt a dragon? That’s fine, but all they have to go on is one off-handed comment from a drunk in a tavern. In the time it takes them to uncover any solid leads, if they exist at all, use it to plot ahead the next few steps. The story isn’t written yet, it can still flow in many directions. I’ve had some of my favorite games and stories, SP included, come about because characters/players refused to follow the path I’d set before them.
So, if you want to get started, here's a link to pathfinder srd, basically the latest good D&D ever since 4th edition was such a wreck. And here's one to Roll20, an awesome service that allows you to play any tabletop from your computer, meaning you can do it with friends across the country.
Also, if anyone throws together a Mutants and Masterminds, Champions, or any solid super-hero game, holler at me because I’ve still never gotten to play in a good tabletop superhero game.